Paul Vlachos is a New Yorker who understands The West. And he is a New Yorker who understands New York. Wherever Paul goes, he finds signs of life…
I’m not some kind of neat freak, although people inclined to believe in astrology might claim otherwise. They might say that it goes without saying that I would be into tidiness. And it’s true that I do like a certain amount of order. I hate having to search for things. I like my clothes to be relatively clean. I actually change my sheets once a week. I shower fairly regularly and do wash my hands a lot. I like a place to be clean enough that it does not attract vermin and I sometimes will duck into a discount pharmacy to buy a 99-cent bottle of hand sanitizer if I encounter something really disgusting and cannot get to a sink. When I’m on the road, though, I’m a little more lax about laundry. My old traveling buddy, Peggy, and I used to joke about how our clothes magically cleaned themselves on the road. If you’re wearing a shirt for a few days in the forest and nobody else is there, does it smell?
That being said, if you’re on a long enough trip, you will end up doing laundry, either in some local laundromat or in the laundry room of a motel, if it’s a motel that offers such a high-end amenity. A seasoned road traveler will even keep a small laundry bag – a milk crate will do – in the back of their trusty vehicle. That way, when you can stand the filth no longer, you can locate a laundromat, back up your car or truck, and set up shop in the parking lot. It’s actually a nice way to break up a day on the road and I have come to enjoy doing laundry at local laundromats. You can get a much better feel for a town in the laundromat than you might at the local tourism office or at an actual tourist attraction. It’s a place to slow down, read the notices on the bulletin board, walk around a little bit, straighten up the inevitable mess in the back of the vehicle and, in my case, maybe take a few photos.
I take photos wherever I go. I also admit to being attracted to photographing a well-lit laundromat at night, whether I’m doing laundry or not. I dimly recognized, a long time back, that laundromats are a theme of mine, some kind of spiritual touchstone. And that’s fine. I shoot only what speaks to me. Still, it was a little surprising, when I decided to write about laundromats for this issue and began to sort through photos, just how big a place they clearly occupy in my heart. I casually went through five years of road photos – from 2005 through 2010 – before I had already chosen WAY too many photos for a Zephyr column. I had not even begun to look through the 10 previous years of film negatives and slides. I had not looked through my local folders, from New York’s Tri-State area, where I have shot many dozens of laundromats. This was just from 5 years of road trips.
I realized that I may have more shots of laundromats than I do of food establishments – and I wrote two Zephyr columns on food with no problem and still have a pile of photos for more columns on food. In other words, prepare yourselves. This is just the beginning. There are more laundry photos to hang out on the line, as it were.
Let’s also clear up one thing: the terminology. I have always said “laundromat.” I don’t think it’s a regional term, but it’s the one I grew up with, even though we had a washer and dryer in our house. I have seen many variations over the years and over the miles: “Laundrymat,” “Laundermat,” “Laundramat,” “Launder-Mat” and others, including the minimalist “Laundry.” “Coin-Op,” “Self-Serve,” and “Hour Wash” may also be appended to the sign. The variations are endless, but the idea is the same: “wash your clothes here.”
When you live in a town and use the local laundromat all the time, it might be a necessary evil, a place that you resign yourself to, a place to avoid, a place to gossip, a place to do chores. If you’re passing through, though, and if you’re a photographer, a writer, chronicler or simply a voyeur, it assumes different dimensions. When you’re in strange territory all day, day after day, far from home, any human interaction becomes more precious. This is especially true if you travel alone, as I usually do.
Doing clothes at a laundromat with a friend or lover on the road can be fun, it can be a shared chore, but it can also be a place where the argument continues in public or where you can steal a few moments away from that other person. When you’re alone and have been hanging out in your own head all day, maybe howling at the moon or wondering what’s up back home, a laundromat can become a special respite, an incredibly temporary place of low-level intimacy.
It’s a place where you can fold your clothes from home in a neat little pile and then load them into the duffel bag in the back of the truck. It’s a place where you might strike up a short conversation – always a risk, I might add – with a stranger and reveal yourself a little bit, possibly stealing some human contact at the expense of the poor soul who’s just trying to do their wash. It can be a place where you read the road atlas and try to figure out which way you’re going to head when you get out of town and the speed limit signs go from “30” back up to “70.”
If you’re in a motel for the night, it’s a way to get out of your room – the Weather Channel on the TV and the camera bag high on the shelf, away from any possible bed bugs. You can do a load and partake of the transient community for an hour – “transient” in the true sense of the word, as in “brief” or “impermanent.” I rarely talk with others in the shared wash room of a motel, but it’s an excuse to walk around the halls for a bit. A seasoned traveler on the open road always carries detergent and quarters. You never know where your next wash is going to occur.
Often, laundromats are next door to car washes, so you can clean your car while your load is spinning. If you’re really efficient, you might pull a trick that I discovered only recently, which is to wash any dirty dishes and pots with a high pressure hose at the local car wash. You drive into town filthy and you leave clean. “Mens sana in corpore sano,” as the Romans used to say, the Roman named Juvenal, specifically. It translates to “a healthy mind in a healthy body,” but I bastardize it into “clean mind, clean body.” Ah, if it were only so easy. Still, it’s better to have clean clothes and a dirty mind than to be filthy inside and out.
Do we need to talk about the metaphysics of cleanliness? Best leave that to another column, possibly two months from now. For, unless some other topic comes up that begs to be addressed, I can already feel a “Part Two” coming on. I have stories, my friends, stories of laundry and laundromats and I feel the need to share them with you. Until the next load…
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